The PLA’s Evolving Joint Task Force Structure: Implications for the Aircraft Carrier

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 20

The Shilang at Sea

At this juncture in the development of China’s aircraft carrier force, the operational employment and integration of an aircraft carrier in a naval or joint task force remains very much in the realm of theory and speculation, yet with careful parsing of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as an organization, some insights can and have been made. These include Ken Allen and Aaron Shraberg’s insightful contributions in using the PLA’s grade system to conduct a thought experiment on locating aircraft carriers within the PLA grade hierarchy ("Assessing the Grade Structure for China’s Aircraft Carriers [Parts 1 and 2]," China Brief, July 15 and July 29). This article seeks to add to their analysis by taking observations from recent PLA exercises that involved joint force structures and speculating where an aircraft carrier might fit into a similar PLA task force organization. Based on this analysis, an aircraft carrier within the PLA Navy (PLAN) probably would be assigned a grade of division deputy leader (Grade 8) and the carrier strike group commander a grade of division leader (Grade 7)—a lower grade assessment than Allen and Shraberg. The implication is that the PLA is devolving joint command authority further down the grade scale as part of an overall attempt to transition away from centralized decision making.


Table 1. Rank, Grade and Title in the PLA*


Navy Position

Army Position

Joint Organization

4. Military Region Deputy Leader (大区副职)

Fleet HQ Commander


MR Deputy Commander

Warzone Joint Training Leadership Organ (战区联合训练领导机关)

5. Jun Leader (正军)

Fleet HQ Deputy Commander

Group Army Commander

Joint Campaign Formation (联合战役军团)

6. Jun Deputy Leader (副军)

Support Base Commander

Group Army Deputy Commander / Group Army Chief-of-Staff


7. Division Leader (正师)

Flotilla Commander

Division Commander

Joint Tactical Formation (联合战术兵团)

8. Division Deputy Leader (副师)

Nuclear-powered Submarine Commander

Division Deputy Commander / Brigade Commander / Division Chief-of-Staff


9. Regiment Leader (正团)

Destroyer Commander

Regiment Commander / Division Deputy Chief-of-Staff



*Adapted from China’s Navy 2007, Office of Naval Intelligence, March 2007, Figures 1 and 4.





Beginning in 2004, the PLA steadily built upon an experimental joint training program in which units of different services were organized into special “military training coordination zones” (junshi xunlian xiezuo qu / MTCZ). Within these zones, units from different services—of jun-level (corps-level) and below—were mandated to share training resources and integrate training objectives. In particular, Weifang MTCZ produced some key building blocks of the PLA’s joint training program, including the development of a “Joint Combat Training Outline” (lianhe zhandou xunlian gangmu) on behalf of the General Departments (zongbu) for dissemination throughout the rest of the PLA (PLA Daily, November 2, 2007). PLA news articles credit Weifang MTCZ and Jinan Military Region, where the zone is located, for making contributions to joint force development, particularly through the "Lianhe" (meaning "Joint") series of annual exercises. Through these exercises, army, navy and air force tactical- and campaign-level components worked through the obstacles and problems of coordinating and training with one another, making evolutionary progress in refining joint command structures and joint training methods (PLA Daily, November 11, 2008). By examining the different organizational echelons of the Lianhe exercise series, some generalizations may be applied to the question of how an aircraft carrier would fit within a PLA joint task force organization.


Joint Task Force Echelons


Three “joint” concepts emerge from the Lianhe series, which illustrate the PLA’s structure for organizing joint task forces [1]. The first concept is the joint tactical formation (lianhe zhanshu bingtuan). The joint tactical formation is the echelon encompassing division- and brigade-level organizations. For practical purposes, this echelon serves as the lowest and most tactically-oriented joint organization. Below this echelon are combat regiments and battalions, which operate largely in single-service fashion [2]. By looking at what units and who from those units occupy this echelon, we may understand better this part of the organizational framework. In Lianhe-2007, the joint tactical formation was composed of three service-specific tactical formations: the army tactical formation (lujun zhanshu bingtuan), the navy tactical formation (haijun zhanshu bingtuan) and the air force tactical formation (kongjun zhanshu bingtuan). The commander of the army tactical formation also served as the overall commander of the joint tactical formation. This post was occupied by a commander of a motorized infantry brigade (Grade 8) (PLA Daily, September 11, 2007). Representing the Navy, the commander of a North Sea Fleet naval flotilla (Grade 7) served as the commander of the naval tactical formation (PLA Daily, November 2, 2007). The commander of the air force tactical formation was a deputy chief of staff of an Air Force aviation division (Grade 9), perhaps suggestive of the junior position of the Air Force among the armed services (PLA Daily, September 11, 2007). The grouping of these three service representatives into a single joint entity, however, suggests their peer status, at least at a functional level. For the captain of an aircraft carrier to sit at this level, he would have to be considered equivalent to a flotilla commander.


The second concept to emerge from the Lianhe series is the idea of the joint campaign formation (lianhe zhanyi juntuan), which supervises the joint tactical formation. This is the joint echelon for jun-class organizations, such as a group army and its commander [3]. In Lianhe-2007, the commander of a certain group army (Grade 5) that was frequently identified as the lead unit of Weifang MTCZ served again as the general exercise director (PLA Daily, September 8, 2007). Furthermore, this commander was also identified as the chair of the Weifang MTCZ Leading Group (Weifang xunlian xiezuo qu lingdao xiaozu zuzhang) and his chief-of-staff (Grade 6) as the director of the MTCZ Office, which is the executive agency of the Leading Group (Xinhua, September 5, 2007; PLA Daily, September 8, 2007). Also sitting at this level, in Lianhe-2008, was a North Sea Fleet deputy commander (Grade 5), with the rank of rear admiral (PLA Daily, November 11, 2008). He was identified as an exercise general director, making him a peer to the group army commander and political commissar. For an aircraft carrier captain to sit at this level, he would have to be equivalent to a fleet deputy commander, equivalent to a jun leader grade.


The highest echelon of this hierarchy is also the least well understood. The General Staff Department and service headquarters are considered widely to be at the strategic level of command, but between that level and the jun-level lies a transition between strategic and campaign command. In the Science of Joint Training, this level is divided into the “warzone strategic” (zhanqu zhanluexing) and “warzone direction” (zhanqu fangxiang), both concepts whose roles have yet to be fully clarified in practice [4]. There has been some indication as to what organs and personnel constitute this level. In 2009, the PLA established under the Jinan Military Region the military’s “first warzone joint training leadership organ” (shouge zhanqu lianhe xunlian lingdao jigou) (PLA Daily, February 25, 2009). Although initial reports suggest it was to be a military region headquarters-level leading group, later reports indicated the chair of the group was a military region deputy commander (Grade 4) (PLA Daily, July 28, 2009). In addition, the commander of the North Sea Fleet (Grade 4) served as a deputy commander within the “warzone joint command post” in 2009 (Xinhua, June 30, 2009). This implies the warzone-level joint command is at the deputy military region leader level (Grade 4).


Taken together, these three echelons make up the warzone- or theater-level joint command organization, bridging the strategic, campaign and tactical levels. The grade structure implied by the incumbent officers largely corresponds to the grade hierarchy given for PLA rankings as depicted in Table 1.




The analysis of Allen and Shraberg finishes off with certain remaining questions, which might be illuminated further through this analysis. One question posed was to whom the carrier would be subordinated. According to the joint organizational framework depicted here, a carrier participating in a joint task force probably would be subordinated to the joint campaign formation, the jun leader grade formation at the fleet deputy commander level (Grade 5). This is because a carrier strike group would first be considered part of a navy tactical formation, whose commander would represent the service within the joint tactical formation (Grade 7). Hence, the carrier strike group commander and the rest of the joint tactical echelon would report directly to the joint campaign formation [5]. This implies, then, that the billet of aircraft carrier commander would be below the flotilla commander grade, since the strike group commander would already sit in that chair. As Allen and Shraberg noted, “no vessel can be assigned the same grade as that of the organization to which it is subordinate” ("Assessing the Grade Structure for China’s Aircraft Carriers: Part 1," China Brief, July 15). This means that if the carrier was to form part of a naval flotilla, it could not occupy the same grade as the flotilla itself. Since the joint tactical formation grade is a flotilla commander grade, the carrier itself must reside below it. That leaves a deputy division commander grade billet (Grade 8), which also happens to be the grade given to China’s nuclear-powered submarines.


Given the strictures of the grade hierarchy, the experience of previous joint task force structures suggests that the aircraft carrier itself will be given the grade of deputy division leader (Grade 8) and the carrier strike group a grade of division leader (Grade 7). Whether the air wing commander is assigned the same rank as the carrier commander remains an open question, as previously an Air Force aviation division deputy chief-of-staff served with a navy flotilla commander in a peer relationship. The PLAN may see its own aviation forces in a better light than the PLA Air Force, but given the junior status of the Naval Aviation branch within the Navy, the air wing commander is likely to be at the grade of deputy division leader (Grade 8) or lower.


This casting most closely adheres to the lines of authority established in Lianhe, including allowing for a substantial degree of joint interaction and decision-making in the joint tactical formation. However, in an alternate scenario, the carrier strike group commander could be considered the overall joint campaign formation commander, making the person who filled that billet a deputy fleet commander (Grade 5). Under such a framework, the strike group commander would not only be in charge of the naval tactical formation, but would oversee the entire joint tactical formation, including other service components. This would allow space in the hierarchy for a division-grade carrier. The carrier would probably not be considered to be in an organic flotilla with its escorts, but would operate in coordination with any escort flotilla. How the carrier captain would relate to a peer flotilla commander and whether they would represent one or multiple naval tactical formations would have to be worked out in practice, as would other relationships within the joint tactical formation.


While giving rise to potential organizational frictions, it is completely within reason to suggest that the Navy may alter convention for an aircraft carrier, giving the vessel equal status to a flotilla, or higher, and subordinating the strike group directly to fleet or Navy headquarters. This may be somewhat more complicated in terms of command and control relationships, but such an arrangement could be accommodated by PLAN organizational structure. Hong Kong-based observers have made similar predictions that the carrier would stretch convention and receive higher grade status, “due to the first carrier’s importance” (Tzu Ching Magazine, August 2011). Until sea trials are concluded and the ex-Varyag engages in training missions of substance, we will have to wait and see.



  1. The PLA literature seldom uses the phrase “task force”, but in reference to its own joint organization it uses the terms described herein. For Western readers, however, “joint task force” serves as useful shorthand.
  2. Notwithstanding marginal progress in the development of joint combat units, such as the “integrated battalion” (jicheng ying) and “joint combat subunit” (lianhe zhandou fendui), these do not figure significantly in Lianhe exercises.
  3. Many translate juntuan as “large formation”; either way the significance is lost without understanding that the Chinese juntuan connotes a corps- (or jun-) level organization.
  4. Xu Genchu, ed., Science of Joint Training (Lianhe Xunlian Xue), Beijing: Military Science Press, 2006, p. 234.
  5. Grade 6, that of jun deputy commander, may remain a possible position at which to insert a new command organ, but there is scant evidence of such an occurrence.